Bath International Music Festival, Bath Abbey: Dhafer Youssef – Les Ondes Orientales (World Première)

by 5:4

Last Wednesday, the Beloved and i were at Bath Abbey, for a “Messiaen Centenary Celebration” given as part of the Bath International Music Festival. In addition to Messiaen‘s rarely-performed Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine and a keyboard concerto by J. S. Bach, the concert included the world première of Les Ondes Orientales by Tunisian composer Dhafer Youssef. Pianist Joanna MacGregor is the artistic director of the Bath Festival, and she also took part in the piece.

i knew nothing about Dhafer Youssef before the concert, and that hasn’t changed much, but this first encounter with his work was fascinating. The majority of Les Ondes Orientales juxtaposes Youssef’s vocal gymnastics with varying string textures (the piano part appeared to be largely irrelevant). A sense of drone is often felt, and the rhythmic language is interesting but simple, so the overall combination has resonances with minimalism. The result, however, is something very different, not least due to the remarkably striking sounds and timbres that Youssef can elicit from his head. Softly spoken foreign phrases – perhaps prayer, perhaps narration – yielded to raw, loud ululating, some of the notes held for incredibly long periods, plus occasional high pitched nasal sounds that made some members of the audience visibly jump with surprise.

Over its 20-minute duration, it took a while to feel that i grasped where Youssef was coming from; ultimately, the sense of sheer enjoyment exhibited by the players and particularly Youssef, and the very palpable sense of risk (improvisation is significant in the piece) was an infectious combination. It wasn’t a piece to think too much about but, rather, in which to get caught up; the composer got a warm and very vocal ovation at the end, which he richly deserved.

The world première of Les Ondes Orientales was given by Dhafer Youssef (voice/oud), Joanna MacGregor (piano) and the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Diego Masson.

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